Uwe Bornscheueris biotechnologist and holds the chair for Biotechnology and Enzyme Catalysis at the University of Greifswald in northeastern Germany. Gert Weber, a structural biologist and biochemist, is affiliated with the Helmholtz-Zentrum-Berlin, Bessy II Synchrotron. They have teamed upto improve the catalytic properties of plastic-degrading enzymes for use in sustainable recycling – iteratively engineering proteins on the basis of molecular structure.
We’ve long celebrated plastics for their strength and simple manufacture, but their high production rates and uncontrolled disposal have turned them into a global environmental burden. The amount of industrially-produced plastics increases year-on-year, and their production depends on an ever-declining resource – fossil fuels. For us to limit environmental pollution and prepare for the reduction in crude oil, we need to introduce more sustainable (and biodegradable) polymers into the supply chain and stop wasting our existing oil-based plastics – ensuring that they enter a circular and sustainable economy.
The way that we produce energy needs to change. If we want to tackle global climate change head-on with sustainable energy solutions, then we need a fundamental shift in the way that we create, store, and distribute energy. Ultimately, this means a breadth of changes also occurring in our homes, which could prove challenging. As is often the case with new technologies, the disruption they cause to people’s lives creates pushback that slows their diffusion into general use; people aren’t predisposed to compromise on comfort or convenience.
That’s where efforts such as the Nottingham Trent Basin project come in – providing sustainable solutions that integrate seamlessly with people’s existing routines. The Nottingham Trent Basin project, for example, aims to transform electricity generation in homes by producing it communally.
In 2018, several of the ways that we produce power exist in far more refined forms than their 19th-century industrial period counterparts and, complemented by renewable energy sources, help to propel the world forward at a previously unimaginable rate. However, another source of energy used today remains the same as it did long before the factory: us.
Human beings, on average, suffer from the unfortunate propensity to overlook many of the significant objects, issues, and phenomena around them – passing them by as they go about their day. There may be something groundbreaking right before you, but there’s every chance that you won’t actually notice it. This is an especially unfortunate penchant when it comes to solving global problems; the solutions may be right before us, but we often fail to them.
Take the world’s growing energy requirements as an example – with each passing year, the number of power-hungry technologies grows. With it, the need to produce more energy similarly inflates, and yet with our focus based on the technologies, we spend less time looking for sustainable solutions.
Pavegen’s innovative flooring technology converts the kinetic energy of footsteps into off-grid electricity and data. It enables citizens to participate directly in contributing to the sustainability of their city. The company, based in London and Cambridge, believes that it is people – not technology alone – that will transform our cities.
Architecture has been borrowing from Mother Nature for millennia. The first structures were made from natural materials; wood, straw, stone and soils. Many common objects that we use today are inspired by plant life too – burdock burs inspired George de Mestral to invent Velcro in 1955, and wind turbines are inspired by the fins of humpback whales!
Today, as engineers face the issues caused by climate change and high energy consumption, they are drawing on nature again to change the way we build our homes and offices.
Khainza Energy produces clean, affordable, long lasting cooking gas and packages it in cylinders for sale to low income households in Uganda. The gas is produced entirely from organic waste through biochemical processes. Our gas burns with no smoke, no smell and yet costs less than charcoal!
The idea was inspired by a woman living in Eastern Uganda. She gave birth to her first child when she was barely 16 years old. She now has 6 children, whom she has been providing for almost single handedly. Every morning at 4am, the children awake to the loud sound of an axe splitting firewood. They can hear their mother wheezing and coughing in the small kitchen as she prepares their breakfast. Three years ago, this brave woman was diagnosed with an acute respiratory infection. She had spent a large part of her life effectively “smoking”.
As chemical engineers and chemists, we often don’t get to see what we create – molecules are too small to see and chemical processes often happen in closed systems. As such, when we do get to see the fruits of our labor, the result can be incredibly exciting and motivating.
This was the case in the founding of my company, Sironix Renewables. During my PhD at the University of Minnesota, I worked with a team of scientists to develop new, eco-friendly replacements to existing chemicals and fuels. The process involved making renewably-sourced products, like fuels, detergents, and plastics. Finding a suitable replacement to an existing product is great, but for us the ‘holy grail’ was finding something that worked better than what existed.
One of these ‘holy grail’ moments struck us when we were looking at a set of vials – all but one was filled with a cloudy, white liquid. We were looking at the hard water stability of new detergent molecules for things like spray cleaners and laundry detergents, and the cloudy, white liquid meant it didn’t work well. The one clear vial, however, was our new detergent molecule and it performed flawlessly. This was one of the few moments where we got to see the result of our work.